Rated PG-13 for intense, frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
Walking out of “World War Z,” I realized I probably haven’t felt this edgy and paranoid after a movie since … “Aliens,” maybe? And that was when I was an impressionable teenager in the San Fernando Valley, way back in 1986.
The reports are well-known by now about how the production was plagued by extensive rewrites and weeks of re-shoots _ including an entirely different ending _ which sent the blockbuster’s budget skyrocketing well beyond the $200-million mark. Whatever changes director Marc Forster made with a writing team that includes Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) and who knows how many others, they seem to have been the right ones. As a viewer, you’d never know there was turmoil; the switches are seamless.
As both thrilling spectacle and escapist summer entertainment, “World War Z” is enormously effective, with Brad Pitt at the center hopscotching the globe in search of the origin of a zombie apocalypse. A pandemic is quickly spreading worldwide, turning terrified humans into ravenous predators 12 seconds after they’re exposed and leveling major cities in no time. It’s powerful in its propulsive energy, in both the sense of panic it creates off the top and the quieter, creeping feeling of dread that permeates the final act. I must admit I haven’t read the Max Brooks book that the film is based on, but I understand from friends who have that the tweaks in voice and narrative structure still result in a blast of a film.
“World War Z” startles you just as much in what it doesn’t show as what it does; this is a PG-13 zombie flick, after all, so it’s low on the gore. But the repercussions of this fight for survival are clear and inescapable, often lurking just outside the frame.
The visuals are never short of impressive and often are dazzlingly disturbing; the action is worlds more inspired than Forster’s James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” These aren’t shuffling, lumbering zombies but convulsing, flailing, ravenous freaks. Individually, they’re shocking in their spastic unpredictability; en masse, they are a menacing swarm, working together in a frenzy to create fear. There’s obviously a great deal of CGI at work here in the larger attacks on entire cities, but one scene in particular in Jerusalem, in which the zombies instinctively use each other as a ladder to scramble over a giant wall that’s (supposedly) a fool-proof means of keeping them out, is especially spectacular.
(Three words: exploding zombie helicopter.)
“World War Z” is, however, a tad low on the character development. More than a tad, actually, and the fact that we don’t get to know these people very well keeps us from becoming deeply moved by their peril. Pitt, as former United Nations field investigator Gerry Lane, accomplishes a lot rather efficiently in conveying authority, in establishing a calming feeling in a sea of chaos and carnage. This is not one of his showier or sexier roles by any means, but he gets the job done, often through the sheer power of his magnetic presence. But if you take a step back and actually, you know, think, you realize he’s functioning in the cliched position of being pulled out of retirement for that tried-and-true one last job.
Pitt (who also serves as a producer on the film) also has some lovely, intimate scenes with Mireille Enos, who gives a natural, stand-out performance as his wife and the mother of the couple’s two daughters. Watching them together is also a bit frustrating, though, because you know Enos is capable of even more nuance, more humanity, if only she’d been given the chance. Similarly, strong character actors including James Badge Dale and David Morse appear in roles that are brief but so memorable, they leave you longing for more. Only Daniella Kertesz, as a young Israeli soldier who starts out as Gerry’s protector but becomes a crucial figure in his plan, is afforded the opportunity to show what she can really do.
Even Brad Pitt can use a little help every now and then.